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Brewster’s Début by Ralph Henry Barbour

I

The gong clanged, the last man sprang aboard, and the car trundled away to the accompaniment of a final lusty cheer from the crowd which still lingered in front of the hotel. Then a corner was turned, and the last long-drawn “Er-r-rskine!” was cut short by intercepting walls. The throngs were streaming out to the field where, on the smooth green diamond, the rival nines of Robinson and Erskine were to meet in the deciding game of the season. For a while the car with its dozen or so passengers followed the crowds, but presently it swung eastward toward the railroad, and then made its way through a portion of Collegetown, which, to one passenger at least, looked far from attractive.

Ned Brewster shared one of the last seats with a big leather bat-bag, and gave himself over to his thoughts. The mere fact of his presence there in the special trolley-car as a substitute on the Erskine varsity nine was alone wonderful enough to keep his thoughts busy for a week. Even yet he had not altogether recovered from his surprise.

Ned had played the season through at center field on the freshman nine, and had made a name for himself as a batsman. On Thursday the freshman team had played its last game, had met with defeat, and had disbanded. Ned, trotting off the field, his heart bitter with disappointment at the outcome of the final contest, had heard his name called, and had turned to confront “Big Jim” Milford, the varsity captain.

“I wish you would report at the varsity table to-night, Brewster,” Milford had said. Then he had turned abruptly away, perhaps to avoid smiling outright at the expression of bewilderment on the freshman’s countenance. Ned never was certain whether he had made any verbal response; but he remembered the way in which his heart had leaped into his throat and stuck there, as well as the narrow escape he had had from dashing his brains out against the locker-house, owing to the fact that he had covered most of the way thither at top speed. That had been on Thursday; to-day, which was Saturday, he was a substitute on the varsity, with a possibility—just that and no more—of playing for a minute or two against Robinson, and so winning his E in his freshman year, a feat accomplished but seldom!

Ned had been the only member of the freshman nine taken on the varsity that spring. At first this had bothered him; there were two or three others—notably Barrett, the freshman captain—who were, in his estimation, more deserving of the good fortune than he. But, strange to say, it had been just those two or three who had shown themselves honestly glad at his luck, while the poorest player on the nine had loudly hinted at favoritism. Since Thursday night Ned had, of course, made the acquaintance of all the varsity men, and they had treated him as one of themselves. But they were all, with the single exception of Stilson, seniors and juniors, and Ned knew that a freshman is still a freshman, even if he does happen to be a varsity substitute. Hence he avoided all appearance of trying to force himself upon the others, and so it was that on his journey to the grounds he had only a bat-bag for companion.

The closely settled part of town was left behind now, and the car was speeding over a smooth, elm-lined avenue. Windows held the brown banners of Robinson, but not often did a dash of purple meet the gaze of the Erskine players. At the farther end of the car McLimmont and Housel and Lester were gathered about “Baldy” Simson, the trainer, and their laughter arose above the talk and whistling of the rest. Nearer at hand, across the aisle, sat “Lady” Levett, the big first-baseman. Ned wondered why he was called “Lady.” There was nothing ladylike apparent about him. He was fully six feet one, broad of shoulder, mighty of chest, deep of voice, and dark of complexion—a jovial, bellowing giant whom everybody liked. Beside Levett sat Page, the head coach, and Hovey, the manager. Then there were Greene and Captain Milford beyond, and across from them Hill and Kesner, both substitutes. In the seat in front of Ned two big chaps were talking together. They were Billings and Stilson, the latter a sophomore.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” Billings was saying. “If we lose I’ll buy you a dinner at the Elm Tree Monday night; if we win you do the same for me.”

“Oh, I don’t bet!”

“Get out! That’s fair, isn’t it, Brownie?”

A little round-faced chap across the aisle nodded laughingly. His name was Browne and he played short-stop. He wrote his name with an e, and so his friends gave him the full benefit of it.

“Yes, that’s fair,” said Browne. “We’re bound to lose.”

“Oh, what are you afraid of?” said Stilson.

“No; that’s straight! We haven’t much show; we can’t hit Dithman.”

You can’t, maybe,” jeered Stilson.

“I’ll bet you can’t either, my chipper young friend!”

“I’ll bet I get a hit off him!”

“Oh, one!”

“Well, two, then. Come, now!”

“No; I won’t bet,” answered Browne, grinning. “If there’s a prize ahead, there’s no telling what you’ll do; is there, Pete?”

“No; he might even make a run,” responded Billings. “But it’s going to take more than two hits to win this game,” he went on, dropping his voice, “for I’ll just tell you they’re going to pound Hugh all over the field.”

“Well, what if they do get a dozen runs or so?” said Stilson. “Haven’t we got a mighty batter, imported especially for the occasion, to win out for us?”

“Whom do you mean?” asked Billings.

“I mean the redoubtable Mr. Brewster, of course—the freshman Joan of Arc who is to lead us to vict——”

“Not so loud,” whispered Browne, glancing at Ned’s crimsoning cheeks.

Stilson swung around and shot a look at the substitute, then turned back grinning.

“Cleared off nicely, hasn’t it?” he observed, with elaborate nonchalance.

Ned said to himself, “He’s got it in for me because he knows that if I play it will be in his place.”

The car slowed down with much clanging of gong, and pushed its way through the crowd before the entrance to the field. Then, with a final jerk, it came to a stop. “All out, fellows!” cried Hovey; and Ned followed the others through the throng, noisy with the shouts of ticket and score-card venders, to the gate and dressing-room.

II

Ned sat on the bench. With him were Hovey, the manager, who was keeping score, Hill and Kesner, substitutes like himself, and, at the farther end, Simson, the trainer, and Page, the head coach. Page had pulled his straw hat far over his eyes, but from under the brim he was watching sharply every incident of the diamond, the while he talked with expressionless countenance to “Baldy.” Back of them the grand stand was purple with flags and ribbons, but at a little distance on either side the purple gave place to the brown of Robinson. Back of third base, at the west end of the stand, the Robinson College band held forth brazenly at intervals, making up in vigor what it lacked in tunefulness. In front of the spectators the diamond spread deeply green, save where the base-lines left the dusty red-brown earth exposed, and marked with lines and angles of lime, which gleamed snow-white in the afternoon sunlight. Beyond the diamond the field stretched, as smooth and even as a great velvet carpet, to a distant fence and a line of trees above whose tops a turret or tower here and there indicated the whereabouts of town and college.

Ned had sat there on the bench during six innings, the sun burning his neck and the dust from the batsman’s box floating into his face. In those six innings he had seen Erskine struggle pluckily against defeat—a defeat which now, with the score 12-6 in Robinson’s favor, hovered, dark and ominous, above her. Yet he had not lost hope; perhaps his optimism was largely due to the fact that he found it difficult to believe that Fate could be so cruel as to make the occasion of his first appearance with the varsity team one of sorrow. He was only seventeen, and his idea of Fate was a kind-hearted, motherly old soul with a watchful interest in his welfare. Yet he was forced to acknowledge that Fate, or somebody, was treating him rather shabbily. The first half of the seventh was as good as over, and still he kicked his heels idly beneath the bench. Page didn’t seem to be even aware of his presence. To be sure, there were Hill and Kesner in the same box, but that didn’t bring much comfort. Besides, any one with half an eye could see that Stilson should have been taken off long ago; he hadn’t made a single hit, and already had three errors marked against him. Ned wondered how his name would look in the column instead of Stilson’s, and edged along the bench until he could look over Hovey’s shoulder. The manager glanced up, smiled in a perfunctory way, and credited the Robinson runner with a stolen base. Ned read the batting list again:

Billings, r. f.
Greene, l. f.
Milford, 2b., Capt.
Lester, p.
Browne, ss.
Housel, c.
McLimmont, 3b.
Levett, 1b.
Stilson, c. f.

There was a sudden burst of applause from the seats behind, and a red-faced senior with a wilted collar balanced himself upon the railing and begged for “one more good one, fellows!” The first of the seventh was at an end, and the Erskine players, perspiring and streaked with dust, trotted in. “Lady” Levett sank down on the bench beside Ned with a sigh, and fell to examining the little finger of his left hand, which looked very red, and which refused to work in unison with its companions.

“Hurt?” asked Ned.

“Blame thing’s bust, I guess,” said “Lady,” disgustedly. “Oh, Baldy, got some tape there?”

The trainer, wearing the anxious air of a hen with one chicken, bustled up with his black bag, and Ned watched the bandaging of the damaged finger until the sudden calling of his name by the head coach sent his heart into his throat and brought him leaping to his feet with visions of hopes fulfilled. But his heart subsided again in the instant, for what Page said was merely:

“Brewster, you go over there and catch for Greene, will you?” And then, turning again to the bench, “Kesner, you play left field next half.”

Ned picked up a catcher’s mitt, and for the rest of the half caught the balls that the substitute pitcher sent him as he warmed up to take Lester’s place. Greene didn’t keep him so busy, however, that he couldn’t watch the game. Milford had hit safely to right field and had reached second on a slow bunt by Lester. The wavers of the purple flags implored little Browne to “smash it out!” But the short-stop never found the ball, and Housel took his place and lifted the sphere just over second-baseman’s head into the outfield. The bases were full. The red-faced senior was working his arms heroically and begging in husky tones for more noise. And when, a minute later, McLimmont took up his bat and faced the Robinson pitcher, the supporters of the purple went mad up there on the sun-smitten stand and drowned the discordant efforts of the Robinson band.

McLimmont rubbed his hands in the dust, rubbed the dust off on his trousers, and swung his bat. Dithman, who had puzzled Erskine batters all day and had pitched a magnificent game for six innings, shook himself together. McLimmont waited. No, thank you, he didn’t care for that out-shoot, nor for that drop, nor for— What? A strike, did he say? Well, perhaps it did go somewhere near the plate, though to see it coming you’d have thought it was going to be a passed ball! One and two, wasn’t it? Thanks; there was no hurry then, so he’d just let that in-curve alone, wait until something worth while came along, and—Eh! what was that? Strike two! Well, well, well, of all the umpires this fellow must be a beginner! Never mind that, though. But he’d have to look sharp now or else——

Crack!

Off sped the ball, and off sped McLimmont. The former went over first-baseman’s head; the latter swung around the bag like an automobile taking a corner, and raced for second, reaching it on his stomach a second before the ball. There was rejoicing where the purple flags fluttered, for Captain Milford and Lester had scored.

But Erskine’s good fortune ended there. McLimmont was thrown out while trying to steal third, and Levett popped a short fly into the hands of the pitcher. Greene trotted off to the box, and Ned walked dejectedly back to the bench. Page stared at him in surprise. Then, “Didn’t I tell you to play center field?” he ejaculated.

Ned’s heart turned a somersault and landed in his throat. He stared dumbly back at the head coach and shook his head. As he did so he became aware of Stilson’s presence on the bench.

“What? Well, get a move on!” said Page.

Get a move on! Ned went out to center as though he had knocked a three-bagger and wanted to get home on it. Little Browne grinned at him as he sped by.

“Good work, Brewster!” he called, softly.

Over at left, Kesner, happy over his own good fortune, waved congratulations. In the Erskine section the desultory hand-clapping which had accompanied Ned’s departure for center field died away, and the eighth inning began with the score 12-8.

III

From center field the grand stands are very far away. Ned was glad of it. He felt particularly happy and wanted to have a good comfortable grin all to himself. He had won his E. Nothing else mattered very much now. So grin he did to his heart’s content, and even jumped up and down on his toes a few times; he would have liked to sing or whistle, but that was out of the question. And then suddenly he began to wonder whether he had not, after all, secured the coveted symbol under false pretense; would he be able to do any better than Stilson had done? Robinson’s clever pitcher had fooled man after man; was it likely that he would succeed where the best batsmen of the varsity nine had virtually failed? Or, worse, supposing he showed up no better here in the outfield than had Stilson! The sun was low in the west and the atmosphere was filled with a golden haze; it seemed to him that it might be very easy to misjudge a ball in that queer glow. Of a sudden his heart began to hammer at his ribs sickeningly. He was afraid—afraid that he would fail, when the trial came, there with the whole college looking on! Little shivers ran up his back, and he clenched his hands till they hurt. He wished, oh, how he wished it was over! Then there came the sharp sound of bat against ball, and in an instant he was racing in toward second, his thoughts intent upon the brown speck that sailed high in air, his fears all forgotten.

Back sped second-baseman, and on went Ned. “My ball!” he shouted. Milford hesitated an instant, then gave up the attempt. “All yours, Brewster!” he shouted back. “Steady!” Ned finished his run and glanced up, stepped a little to the left, put up his hands, and felt the ball thud against his glove. Then he fielded it to second and trotted back; and as he went he heard the applause, loud and hearty, from the stands. After that there was no more fear. Robinson failed to get a man past first, and presently he was trotting in to the bench side by side with Kesner.

“Brewster at bat!” called Hovey, and, with a sudden throb at his heart, Ned selected a stick and went to the plate. He stood there swinging his bat easily, confidently, as one who is not to be fooled by the ordinary wiles of the pitcher, a well-built, curly-haired youngster with blue eyes, and cheeks in which the red showed through the liberal coating of tan.

“The best batter the freshmen had,” fellows whispered one to another.

“Looks as though he knew how, too, eh? Just you watch him, now!”

And the red-faced senior once more demanded three long Erskines, three times three, and three long Erskines for Brewster! And Ned heard them—he couldn’t very well have helped it!—and felt very grateful and proud. And five minutes later he was back on the bench, frowning miserably at his knuckles, having been struck out without the least difficulty by the long-legged Dithman. The pride was all gone. “But,” he repeated, silently, “wait until next time! Just wait until next time!”

Billings found the Robinson pitcher for a two-bagger, stole third, and came home on a hit by Greene. Erskine’s spirits rose another notch. Three more runs to tie the score in this inning, and then—why, it would be strange indeed if the purple couldn’t win out! Captain Milford went to bat in a veritable tempest of cheers. He looked determined; but so did his adversary, the redoubtable Dithman.

“We’ve got to tie it this inning,” said Levett, anxiously. “We’ll never do it next, when the tail-enders come up.”

“There’s one tail-ender who’s going to hit that chap in the box next time,” answered Ned.

“Lady” looked amused.

“You’ll be in luck if it comes around to you,” he said. “We all will. Oh, thunder! Another strike!”

A moment later they were on their feet, and the ball was arching into left field; and “Big Jim” was plowing his way around first. But the eighth inning ended right there, for the ball plumped into left-fielder’s hands. “Lady” groaned, picked up his big mitt, and ambled to first, and the ninth inning began with the score 12 to 9.

Greene was determined that Robinson should not increase his tally, even to the extent of making it a baker’s dozen. And he pitched wonderful ball, striking out the first two batsmen, allowing the next to make first on a hit past short-stop, and then bringing the half to an end by sending three glorious balls over the corner of the plate one after another, amid the frantic cheers of the Erskine contingent and the dismay of the puzzled batsman. Then the rival nines changed places for the last time, and Robinson set grimly and determinedly about the task of keeping Erskine’s players from crossing the plate again.

And Milford, leaning above Hovey’s shoulder, viewed the list of batting candidates and ruefully concluded that she would not have much trouble doing it.

The stands were emptying and the spectators were ranging themselves along the base-lines. The Robinson band had broken out afresh, and the Robinson cheerers were confident. The sun was low in the west, and the shadows of the stands stretched far across the diamond. Kesner, who had taken Lester’s place in the batting list, stepped to the plate and faced Dithman, and the final struggle was on.

Dithman looked as calmly confident as at any time during the game, and yet, after pitching eight innings of excellent ball, it scarcely seemed likely that he could still command perfect form. Kesner proved a foeman worthy of his steel; the most seductive drops and shoots failed to entice him, and with three balls against him Dithman was forced to put the ball over the plate. The second time he did it, Kesner found it and went to first on a clean hit into the outfield past third, and the purple banners flaunted exultantly. Milford’s face took on an expression of hopefulness as he dashed to first and whispered his instructions in Kesner’s ear. Then he retired to the coaches’ box and put every effort into getting the runner down to second. But Fate came to his assistance and saved him some breath. Dithman lost command of the dirty brown sphere for one little moment, and it went wild, striking Greene on the thigh. And when he limped to first Kesner went on to second, and there were two on bases, and Erskine was mad with joy. Milford and Billings were coaching from opposite corners, Milford’s bellowing being plainly heard a quarter of a mile away; he had a good, hearty voice, and for the first time that day it bothered the Robinson pitcher. For Housel, waiting for a chance to make a bunt, was kept busy getting out of the way of the balls, and after four of them was given his base.

Erskine’s delight was now of the sort best expressed by turning somersaults. As somersaults were out of the question, owing to the density of the throng, her supporters were forced to content themselves with jumping up and down and shouting the last breaths from their bodies. Bases full and none out! Three runs would tie the score! Four runs would win! And they’d get them, of course; there was no doubt about that—at least, not until McLimmont had struck out and had turned back to the bench with miserable face. Then it was Robinson’s turn to cheer. Erskine looked doubtful for a moment, then began her husky shouting again; after all, there was only one out. But Dithman, rather pale of face, had himself in hand once more. To the knowing ones, Levett, who followed McLimmont, was already as good as out; the way in which he stood, the manner in which he “went down” for the balls, proved him nervous and overanxious. With two strikes and three balls called on him, he swung at a wretched out-shoot. A low groan ran along the bench. Levett himself didn’t groan; he placed his bat carefully on the ground, kicked it ten yards away, and said “Confound the luck!” very forcibly.

“You’re up, Brewster,” called Hovey.

“Two gone! Last man, fellows!” shouted the Robinson catcher, as Ned tapped the plate.

“Last man!” echoed the second-baseman. “He’s easy!”

“Make him pitch ’em, Brewster!” called Milford. The rest was drowned in the sudden surge of cheers from the Robinson side. Ned faced the pitcher with an uncomfortable empty feeling inside of him. He meant to hit that ball, but he greatly feared he wouldn’t; he scarcely dared think what a hit meant. For a moment he wished himself well out of it—wished that he was back on the bench and that another had his place and his chance to win or lose the game. Then the first delivery sped toward him, and much of his nervousness vanished.

“Ball!” droned the umpire.

Milford and Levett were coaching again; it was hard to say whose voice was the loudest. Down at first Housel was dancing back and forth on his toes, and back of him Milford, kneeling on the turf, was roaring: “Two gone, Jack, remember! Run on anything! Look out for a passed ball! Now you’re off! Hi, hi, hi! Look out! He won’t throw! Take a lead—go on! Watch his arm; go down with his arm! Now you’re off! Now, now, now!

But if this was meant to rattle the pitcher it failed of its effect. Dithman swung his arm out, danced forward on his left foot, and shot the ball away.

“Strike!” said the umpire.

Ned wondered why he had let that ball go by; he had been sure that it was going to cut the plate, and yet he had stood by undecided until it was too late. Well! He gripped his bat a little tighter, shifted his feet a few inches, and waited again. Dithman’s expression of calm unconcern aroused his ire; just let him get one whack at that ball and he would show that long-legged pitcher something to surprise him! A palpable in-shoot followed, and Ned staggered out of its way. Then came what was so undoubtedly a ball that Ned merely smiled at it. Unfortunately at the last instant it dropped down below his shoulder, and he waited anxiously for the verdict.

“Strike two!” called the umpire.

Two and two! Ned’s heart sank. He shot a glance toward first. Milford was staring over at him imploringly. Ned gave a gasp and set his jaws together firmly. The pitcher had the ball again, and was signaling to the catcher. Then out shot his arm, the little one-legged hop followed, and the ball sped toward the boy at the plate. And his heart gave a leap, for the delivery was a straight ball, swift, to be sure, but straight and true for the plate. Ned took one step forward, and ball and bat met with a sound like a pistol-shot, and a pair of purple-stockinged legs were flashing toward first.

Up, up against the gray-blue sky went the sphere, and then it seemed to hang for a moment there, neither rising nor falling. And all the time the bases were emptying themselves. Kesner was in ere the ball was well away, Greene was close behind him, and now Housel, slower because of his size, was swinging by third; and from second sped a smaller, lithe figure with down-bent head and legs fairly flying. Coaches were shouting wild, useless words, and none but themselves heard them; for four thousand voices were shrieking frenziedly, and four thousand pairs of eyes were either watching the flight of the far-off ball, or were fixed anxiously upon the figure of left-fielder, who, away up near the fence and the row of trees, was running desperately back.

Ned reached second, and, for the first time since he had started around, looked for the ball, and, as he did so, afar off across the turf a figure stooped and picked something from the ground and threw it to center-fielder, and center-fielder threw it to third-baseman, and meanwhile Ned trotted over the plate into the arms of “Big Jim” Milford, and Hovey made four big black tallies in the score-book. Three minutes later and it was all over, Billings flying out to center field, and the final score stood 13-12. Erskine owned the field, and Ned, swaying and slipping dizzily about on the shoulders of three temporary lunatics, looked down upon a surging sea of shouting, distorted faces, and tried his hardest to appear unconcerned—and was secretly very, very happy. He had his E; best of all, he had honestly earned it.


Ned trotted over the plate into the arms of “Big Jim” Milford.